I was born in 1992. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and a teaching certification. I am currently working on a Master’s degree in Education. I have never been an expert in anything; I can write a fine paper and do my fair share of ruminating on literary themes, but I am not an expert. I am not a “Master’ of anything yet, and there’s nothing I’ve studied long enough to have ended up feeling like I can call myself an expert. That said, there are lots of things that I’m not exactly a novice in, either. Counting preschool and kindergarten, this is my twentieth consecutive year of being a student in the American education system.
This puts me in a kind of strange situation regarding expert and novice learning approaches. I know more about literature, language, and writing than your average person, but not enough to feel like I’m in the same learning category as a professor. The same can be said about me and a lot of things. I suppose I am somewhere in between novice and expert, but as I can only remember having been one of those, I’ll focus on that.
Literary criticism is kind of the bane of a lot of English majors. I don’t understand that, as I quite enjoy it, but to someone coming out of high school and used to high school English, a literary critical essay is one of the most confusing things you could be expected to do. I remember the first time I had to do this, I had no idea what I was doing and nobody was explaining it to me. For the uninitiated, those of you whose English courses in college ended with 200X, upper level criticism is a strange blend of that you’re probably familiar with. It is not unlike other research papers, but in my opinion there’s a certain nuance to it that you don’t find in other writing. You’re very carefully deconstructing arguments from other critics and rearranging their thoughts with your own to create an almost unbelievable niche interpretation of a piece of literature. The first time I did this was with The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and I wrote something about her stereotypically masculine behavior and how it related to the beliefs in astrology in Chaucer’s time. It was sort of rudimentary, but at the time it was a seemingly insurmountable task. I kept being told by the professor (whom I respect very much) that I needed to “find critical articles’ and “have a conversation with them.’ To someone who has just switched into a liberal arts degree, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I ended up having to turn to a nontraditional student in the class for help; she let me read some of her papers from the past and helped me through the process, explaining what it meant to “have a conversation’ with your critics.
Over the course of my English degree I wrote dozens, possibly over a hundred papers. I’ve never taken the time to count because I’m afraid to see how many pages it would add up to. By now I’m fairly good at it and I find myself in the nontraditional student’s place. I’m not exactly an “expert’ who has been published in reputable journals, but I no longer find the prewriting process confusing. I can even help out some of my young English major friends. Last year, while I student taught, I took over AP Literature (12th grade) and taught them to write their first upper level critical essays, in the style of 300 and 400 level English classes. That was one of the hardest things I’ve done, because I wasn’t close enough to their position to think like them but I wasn’t enough of an expert to answer their questions perfectly. I’ve now spent a large portion of my college career feeling like a confident, but not master, writer.
As I finish my Masters, I also work part time in the University archives, where my boss is truly an expert at what she does. She knows the ins and outs of that place better than I’ve ever seen anyone know anything. This is my fourth year there and while I feel confident that I am no longer a novice, I still sometimes just don’t “get’ what she’s talking about. I don’t always understand the logic through which things are done. That’s okay, of course. It isn’t technically my job to understand everything I’m doing, so long as it gets done properly. But I like to know, because I find it interesting. She has a way of explaining things that makes you feel like you’re missing out on the 30 years of archival experience you need to really participate in the conversation. It’s been too long since she was a novice, but she no longer treats me like one, either. It can be hard to reach out to someone who is kind of in the middle of learning.
Because I’m not quite old enough or experienced enough to feel like a proper expert in anything, I like to surround myself in life with people who are. Looking at my personal learning network from the brainstorming activity, I have a wide pool of people I can fish from (bad metaphor?) for information, direction, and advice on almost any topics. I am friends with archivists, teachers, watchmakers, golfers, nerds, athletes, social activists, geographers, literary critics, poets, painters, electricians, wine enthusiasts, network technicians, and more. Most of these people are older than me and they all seem to have something they are very good at. Someday, I hope to be very good at teaching. I’ll be in their position. For now, I’m sometimes left feeling like I’m always a bridesmaid, and never a bride. I’m there, among the learning, and I contribute my part and have a good time and can speak up when appropriate. But I’m not the little girl catching the bouquet and I’m not the bride. Maybe this is a bad metaphor too, but I wish Benander had focused a little more on the intermediary period between novice and expert. The journeyman, I guess. That’s where I feel I am a lot of the time. It doesn’t bother me, of course, because every expert goes through an intermediate stage. Sometimes your intermediate knowledge is so much greater than someone else’s novice knowledge that you can play an expert, and that’s a valuable learning experience for both people. These people inspire me, motivate me, teach me, share with me, and also sometimes learn from me. I have a fantastic learning network that I have been lucky enough to stumble into. Most of them are, let’s say, over 30, so they’re far more deeply invested into their fields than I am.
I’m not exactly sure how to wrap this up, to be honest. As a school teacher, students of certain grade levels are expected to have certain knowledge levels, and you are to function at least partially as the “expert.’ Simple…ish. Simpler, at least. The same can be said at the university level for undergraduates and at a professional level during professional development. The vaguely Confucian relationship inherent in certain learning situations implies a teacher-student or expert-novice dynamic, and while I loved the Bernander article enough to send it to other people, I wanted to use this essay to give everyone a bit of insight into the mindset of an intermediate learner. The graduate student, who is in some ways an expert but in some ways a novice, has a different perspective than what was given in our readings. I simultaneously understand both yet identify with neither sides of the expert-novice spectrum. When you’re talking about experiential learning, being “somewhat experienced’ can be strange.
I’m not complaining, of course; I enjoy this stage quite a bit. It’s a stage of learning that can be characterized by rapid growth, strong learning networks, personal learning skills, forward momentum and possibility, all grounded with a somewhat strong knowledge base. Graduate students aren’t experts though, and I certainly don’t think they should be teaching classes to other university students. Maybe it’s better to always stay an intermediate in at least one field? If you’re constantly putting yourself back into the novice position in one subject as you move towards mastery in another, you’ll stay in touch with both sides of the spectrum in a way that lets you connect more with your students and your teachers (of any kind). I have always tried to do that in my life, and I imagine I will continue to do so. Instructors, educators, bosses, supervisors – whatever you self-identify as – if you’re teaching something you need to understand the entire learning spectrum. I do currently feel like in all aspects I’m in the middle of that spectrum – but that’s no less of a valid contribution to the discussion, I think. Someone has to act as a middleman or translator for the experts, after all.